|Esther, Theology of |
Understanding the Book. For many Christians, the Book of Esther is the basis for a Jewish festival that found no counterpart in the Christian calendar. The book is never alluded to in the New Testament or Dead Sea Scrolls, and even comments about it by the church fathers are rare. The book appears to be anthropocentric, and apart from fasting (4:16), there are no distinctly religious practices or concepts. God, prayer, the covenant, sacrifice, the temple, the promised land, as well as virtues such as love, kindness, mercy, and forgiveness are not mentioned. Because of the many omissions, the Greek version of Esther added personal prayers of the two main characters and reference to God. Moreover, a number of the moral and ethical practices of Esther have been considered questionable. Esther hid her identity from the king, was willing to marry a Gentile, did not feel out of place in a harem, had no mercy on Haman, did not observe dietary laws, was at first not willing to help her own people, and sanctioned the plundering of enemies. Furthermore, the author never explicitly condemns her shortcomings, but seems to describe her triumphs with approval. In spite of this, the Book of Esther was included in the canon and has significant theological value.
The Place of Haman. There is at least one aspect in Esther that is often overlooked: the association of Haman with the house of Agag, the king of Amalek (1 Sam 15:30), the enemy of Israel. Long before Esther, God had ordained that there would be war with Amalek for generations (Exod 17:16), and that his name would be blotted from heaven (Deut 25:19; 1 Sam 15:17-18). Although the Amalekite king Agag was captured, Saul spared him (he was ultimately slain by Samuel); thus his descendant Haman survived to contend with the Jews. (The Chronicler describes the destruction of the Amalekites later during the reign of Hezekiah [1 Chron 4:43], but the writer of Esther believes that they did not come to a complete end. ) Likewise, the mention of Kish (the father of Saul) at the end of Mordecai's genealogy (2:5) shows that he was descended from the mortal enemy of the Agagites. Mordecai would thus fulfill the command of God to Saul. The Jews did not take the spoils of Haman because of the dictum of not dividing the booty of Amalek (1 Sam 15:21).
Although falling down before a superior in Israel was common, it is easier in this context to understand why Mordecai did not fall prostrate before Haman. Mordecai was not exhibiting pride in this case, but refused to bow down before a descendant of Agag. Josephus understands Mordecai as following the law of vendetta; his personal conflict was part of the providential plan. The author of Esther sees the destruction of Haman as salvation from God, who pursued his plan independent of human action. The Jews were saved, not so much for their sake, but for the fulfillment of the destruction of the Amalekites. Their deliverance became a part of a universal pattern of history.
Purim. Another purpose of the book is to provide the historical grounds and cultic significance for the celebration of Purim, a festival that is not mentioned in the Torah. The writer, however, spends little time on the subject (3:7; 9:20-32). It is not certain whether it was a pagan festival (either Babylonian, Persian, or indigenous) that was appropriated for Jewish purposes. Even the names of Mordecai and Esther betray a pagan background. Purim appears to be an Akkadian term for lot or chance; its etymology, however, does not help us retrieve the source of the festival. The lots were used in dice throwing, serving a purpose to those who had a widespread belief in a predestined fate with which people needed to cooperate if they were to succeed. The dice were thrown to establish auspicious dates for all known events. The Jews lived in such a culture in Persia; they needed to theologically comprehend a belief in the power of God to overrule the way the dice fell. God was able to annul the good or bad omen to deliver his people. This may explain why God is not overtly mentioned in Esther. The assurance provided by Purim was that no matter how severe the threat to God's people, he would help them. Human responsibility is prominent in Esther but not isolated from God's work; Esther and Mordecai were placed providentially to act in behalf of the people. Purim answered questions the Jews had about their future as scattered groups in alien cultures. Like the Passover, it celebrated deliverance from death.
The writer of Esther kept the original story, even with its questionable brutality, nationalism, intrigue, and secularism, but gave it a new theological interpretation within the worship and sacred tradition of Israel. The story of Esther was made relevant for future generations, while Purim was drawn into the orbit of Israel's religious heritage. Furthermore, the writer of Esther has stated the strongest case for the religious significance and survival of the Jewish people in the ethnic sense. In fact, the inclusion of Esther in the Christian canon has mitigated the attempt to spiritualize the concept of Israel.
Mark W. Chavalas
See also Feasts and Festivals of Israel
Bibliography. J. Baldwin, Esther: An Introduction and Commentary; S. Berg, The Book of Esther; E. Bickerman, Four Strange Books of the Bible: Jonah, Daniel, Koheleth, and Esther; T. Gaster, Purim and Hannakah in Custom and Tradition; W. W. Hallo, BA (1983): 19-27; F. B. Huey, Esther; J. Lewy, Revue Hittite et Asianique 5 (1939): 117-24; C. A. Moore, Esther; S. Talmon, VT 13 (1963): 419-55.